Private Mars Mission in 2018?

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Yes, you read that correctly. An entrepreneur wants to charter a SpaceX rocket to launch two interplanetary buddies on the ultimate joyride: A mission to Mars. But the timeline is tight — as in 5 years time “tight.”

This random piece of spaceflight news is brought to you by Dennis Tito, multimillionaire and founder of the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation. Tito also knows a thing or two about space — he was the world’s first space tourist who, in 2001, spent a little over a week living on board the International Space Station. He reportedly spent $20 million for his orbital trek.

And now, it seems, he has far loftier goals.

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Tito will host a press conference on Feb. 27 detailing his “Mars-shot” plan. But what is known is that he intends to hire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, to blast a spaceship beyond low-Earth orbit. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket — that is currently in development — should fit the bill quite nicely. According to a NewSpace Journal report based on an Inspiration Mars paper detailing the proposed mission, a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule will be the spaceship of choice.

Because of the short timeframe to develop the necessary technology to make this mission possible, the mission will be strictly no-frills. It will use existing tech for life support and will not make any attempt to land on the Martian surface or orbit the planet. It will simply be a fly-there, fly-by, fly-back mission. Attempting such a feat would be one for the history books, surely catapulting the hopes and dreams on Earth to the Red Planet where far grander missions will be attempted later on.

By Tito’s team’s reckoning, the mission will launch in the January 2018 launch window (when Earth and Mars are in a favorable positions) and last 501 days.

“This ‘Mission for America’ will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration,” officials from the Inspiration Mars Foundation wrote in a media advisory on Feb. 20 (via NASAWatch.com). “It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation.”

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This all sounds very noble and exciting, but until next week’s press conference, it’s hard to comment on the details.

Mars Frustrations

Discussing human Mars missions can be frustrating. NASA has been aiming its human spaceflight dreams at the Red Planet for decades and yet we keep sending robots in place of astronauts. Robotic exploration of Mars is awesome, but you can’t totally replace the human experience with hi-tech emissaries. Tito seems to “get” that — he wants to inspire America to undertake the farthest manned expedition since the Apollo era.

Unfortunately, simply cramming a skeleton crew into a capsule using existing technology and catapulting it at Mars seems to fly in the face of studies into the psychological and physiological impacts on humans in space and extreme isolation. Although the impressive SpaceX Dragon capsule is “roomy” by current spaceship standards, will the volume be large enough to support two people plus their water and food needs for 501 days? “Crew comfort is limited to survival needs only. For example, sponge baths are acceptable, with no need for showers,” says the paper. Only hard-core survivalists need apply?

As the joint Russian-European Mars500 experiment that recently ended proved, we are far from fully understanding how individuals react to long-term isolation. Also, the impact of high-energy particles on the brain during long-duration spaceflight are only just beginning to come to light. And then there’s the degradation of drugs in long-duration spaceflight. And muscle atrophy. And bone wastage (you get the point).

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But there’s a flip-side to this coin. We live in a risk-adverse society where “doing bold things” require a disclaimer that makes the Facebook privacy agreement look like a haiku. Pushing the human exploration envelope invokes fear of lawsuits, injury and death rather than advancing mankind beyond low-Earth orbit. Sure, spaceflight is bad for your health, but is there a greater danger of not doing these things? These fears, plus the inevitable political strain of securing funding for awesome science projects, ultimately stymie the opportunities for doing an “Apollo 2.0″ and landing a human on Mars.

For privately-owned entities like SpaceX and entrepreneurs like Tito, many of these factors can be circumvented and, perhaps, they can lead the next great era of human space exploration of the solar system.

So, we wait to hear the details of Tito’s plan; let’s just hope the details are as achievable as the challenge is formidable.

For more information on Tito’s plans, also check out Mike Wall’s SPACE.com article.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Mars rendering), SpaceX (Dragon capsule art), edit by Ian O’Neill